Rather frequently it seems perhaps preachers take these verses in Romans chapter 4 out of their context and meaning, twisting them into something post-salvation (I.e. Abraham in Gen 17), which is both corrupting this passage and salvation itself. The entire chapter of Rom 4 is about justification, and it’s not difficult to perceive this if we just interpret by context and grammar, and rightly divide the word of truth. Paul uses Abraham as the model or benchmark of true conversion, with vv (verses) 16-22 explaining Abrahams faith exercised in his conversion. He is after all the father of our faith (Rom 4:1, 11-12, 16-18) — if we’re saved.
The difficulty in fact arises when attempting to change this from justification into something post-justification. Amongst many, I have heard Reg Kelly do this, including David’s testimony of conversion in the same chapter (Rom 4:6-8), twisting it, along with his testimony of conversion in Ps 32:1-5, into sins of a Christian, so post-salvation. Absolutely nothing in Rom 4, including vv 16-25, even suggests the idea of anything but salvation. Nothing hints at sanctification or post-salvation. The entire chapter reflects only salvation, as do the chapters in context. God is not the author of confusion. I will give a brief overview of this chapter below, followed by a more detailed exposition.
Romans 4 starts with showing the way of justification by giving Abraham’s testimony of salvation (vv 1-5), then David’s (vv 6-8) — those 8 verses contrasting the truth of justification by faith alone with attempts at salvation by works which cannot save or help save (vv 1-8) — followed by clarifying no difference between Jew (circumcision) or Gentile (uncircumcision) in salvation, and that salvation is by faith alone without the deeds of the law (vv 9-16), concluding the context with expounding the faith that saved Abraham (vv 16-22), the model of saving faith to us (vv 23-25). This is very explicit and precise. It’s not difficult by any means to see that justification is the subject of the entire chapter of Romans 4.
1. Verses 16-17
“Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham; who is the father of us all, (As it is written, I have made thee a father of many nations,) before him whom he believed, even God, who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were.”
This speaks to the grace Abraham received through Christ by saving faith. Receiving God’s grace requires faith, and is received at salvation (the subject of this passage, cf. Col 1:6; 1 Pe 1:10-13), not at some point after, though it continues onward (e.g. Ti 2:11-14).
Verse 17 speaks of God quickening him (making him alive, giving him life) from the dead. This means he was dead, which means he was unsaved in this context, in need of life. Quickening occurs at salvation, not after (read Jn 5:21; 6:63; Eph 2:1-5; Col 2:13). We are brought to life, made alive forevermore, when we are regenerated, and thus have no more need to be made alive again (Jn 11:25-26, “Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?”) Verse 18 speaks of Abraham becoming a “father of many nations.” When did that promise take effect? After salvation or at salvation? At salvation of course, the promised seed, the crux of the Gospel, had to be believed (Gen 15:1-6) and thus taking effect at Abrahams conversion (Gen 15:7-21).
2. Verse 18
“Who against hope believed in hope, that he might become the father of many nations; according to that which was spoken, So shall thy seed be.”
This is the hope Abraham had which was according to Gods Word, though everything humanely speaking went against that hope. He had faith in the words of God, not a pie in the sky, believing what He said, and “that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him” (Heb 11:6b), for “without faith it is impossible to please him.” (Heb 11:6a). This is salvation, what occurs at that moment, being saved through the Word of God (Rom 10:17; 1 Pet 1:23-25).
True saving hope is required for salvation, the “one hope of your calling” (Eph 4:4; Col 1:23; 2 Th 2:16; Ti 1:2; 3:7; Heb 3:6; 6:18-19; 7:19; 11:1; 1 Pet 1:3, 21; etc). Abraham believed in hope against hope. This is a figure of speech, an oxymoron that uses opposite ideas to convey a thought. That’s what we have here. He hoped when there was no hope. That means against all human capability and capacity he believed God. When there was no hope he still hoped. Hope and faith are different. Hope is a desire for something to happen and faith is the confidence it will happen. Hope and faith are like two peas in a pod. It didn’t make any sense to hope what he hoped. But he needed to believe in what was said, not what made sense to him.
Humanely speaking it was impossible for him to have a child at his age. He hoped in the impossible because he had faith it would happen. God had told him he would be the father of many nations and Abraham finally believed it. I say finally because God had preached the same gospel to him on at least three previous occasions (Gen 12:1-3, 7; 13:15-16) and now twice in the context of his conversion (Gen 15:3, 4-5) and he finally overcame the matter of unbelief, which is a sin and all sin must be turned from in repentance, and exercised faith in Gods Word (Gen 15:5-6) that would save him, which faith is described for us here in Rom 4:16-18. This is the faith that saved Abraham, even further described in the next 3 verses (vv 19-21). It is scriptural faith.
3. Verses 19-21
“And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sara's womb: He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; And being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform.”
These verses continue describing Abraham’s faith in what God was promising through his dead body and Sara’s dead womb. Abraham obeyed the gospel that God preached to him (Gal 3:18) by strongly believing what humanely speaking appeared impossible, had no personal capacity to make happen, utterly impotent, not considering his dead body (vv 16-22).
He didn’t stagger at Gods words and promise through unbelief (he didn’t remain an unbeliever as before: Gen 11-14), but gave glory to God by “being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform.” (v 21). That is saving faith and it glorifies God. It is salvation language. The just live by faith (Hab 2:4; Rom 1:17) not in unbelief. Unbelief = unbeliever (Rom 11:30-32). Abraham moved from a place of unbelief to saving faith, the faith required for conversion. This didn’t occur after he was saved but at the moment of his conversion. Previously he had had a certain faith in God which enabled him to obey Him by departing Ur of the Chaldees to the promised land of Canaan (Gen 11), but he lacked the faith necessary for salvation.
Faith was required in the promised Seed, the promised Messiah who would bear his sins and raise him from the dead, the very Seed which would come through his loins. On aside note, the corrupt Critical Text (from whence all modern perversions hail) removes the word “not” of “not his own body now dead,” as well as “neither” of “neither yet the deadness of Sara's womb,” which corrupts and changes the meaning of this verse, takes away from Abrahams faith (and thus ours by extension, vv 23-25) and throws doubt on the preservation of Scripture. This passage actually sheds light on the faith of preservation. God perfectly persevered what transpired back then for us in His Word, just like He has promised.
Abraham didn’t stagger at the promise of God, even though he had no seed or ability to have seed. God would have to produce something out of nothing for him to have a child, and he staggered not at that. People claim if we don’t have the textual evidence that is needed, we can’t be sure that God preserved His Word. This is where many people are today about preservation of Scripture. Well Abraham didn’t have seed. Which is the greater miracle? He staggered not. This means we need to confidently believe in the preservation of Scripture, because that is faith. Saved people live and walk by faith (Rom 1:17; Gal 3:18; 2 Cor 5:1-7; Heb 10:38-39). Not in unbelief. Unbelief by the way, just like in this passage, ALWAYS refers to an unbeliever (Rom 3:3; 11:20; 1 Tim 1:13; Heb 3:7-4:11). And those that don’t believe in preservation are also unbelievers.
4. Verse 22
“And therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness.”Repeated in v 23, “it was imputed to him.”
What was therefore imputed to him? God’s righteousness. Based upon what? His strong and persuaded faith in what God had said. “Therefore” shows consequence, meaning a result of or for that reason. Abraham received God’s imputed righteousness (v 22) based upon his faith just described in verses 16-21. The words “imputed to him for righteousness” ONLY refer to justification and specifically here to Abraham’s justification, which happens to be the entire theme of vv 16-25 the rest of Rom 4 (cf. Gal 3:6; Gen 15:1-6) if you haven’t noticed already. Gods righteousness is never imputed after salvation. Abraham was saved in Gen 15, not Gen 17 or 12 for that matter.
Verse 4 stated the same, “For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.” Repeated in Gal 3:6, “Even as Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” All referring to Abraham’s testimony of salvation recorded in Gen 15:6, “And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness.” Righteousness was imputed to Abraham by God through faith (vv 3-5, 16-22) which is available to all people (vv 23-25).
Eleven times the language of salvation is used in Rom 4, “logizomai,” same word translated as “imputed,” “reckoned,” “counted” (vv. 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 22, 23, 24), and they all mean “to put to one’s account.” It could be described as a man who owes a great debt that he couldn’t possibly pay, and a kind wealthy man pays the debt, but then goes even beyond that and puts a great sum of money into the man’s account. That is what Jesus Christ did for the repentant sinner, and it’s the language used from start to finish of Romans 4 and onward into Romans 5, having started back in Romans 1 already. Clearly v 22 cannot be separated from vv 16-21, or vv 23-25, so twisting vv 16-21 into post-salvation sanctification is turning salvation into a form of works, since the imputed righteousness of God (v 22) according to such teaching is received after salvation.
These passages are all tightly tied together and inseparable from one another and all refer to the exact same thing: justification.
5. Verses 23-25
“Now it was not written for his sake alone, that it was imputed to him; But for us also, to whom it shall be imputed, if we believe on him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead; Who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification.”
God’s promise of imputed righteousness through justification (vv. 1-22), was not written and imputed to Abraham alone, but to whosoever will repentantly believe on the resurrected Christ, which subject continues on into Rom 5. Twisting vv. 16-22 into something other than salvation, demands vv. 23-25, and vv, 1-8 for that matter, to be something other than salvation. But this would then mean Paul is teaching a form of works-salvation. God forbid! Thus is the consequence of corrupting scripture.
What was the faith of Abraham? He believed in “Jesus our Lord.” (v. 24). Jesus is to be received as Lord. That is what He is called in Romans, and Saviour not even once. He does save, but the way He saves is by believing in and confessing Him as our Lord, which actually means something, dovetailing with repentance, the salvation theme throughout Scripture. Saving faith is repentant and humble faith borne in a poor, contrite and broken spirit that forsakes all worldly pleasures, sins and self, and says, ‘I have no other option but to turn, acknowledging I cannot save myself, I cannot redeem myself, I am unworthy and wicked and have nothing to offer,’ and thus is convicted, persuaded, strong in faith and not staggering.
It is faith that is obedient and submissive in the fear of the Lord, that bows the knees before the King and confesses Jesus as Lord. Thats where Abraham was. He had no hope in himself, and hoped against hope. Its faith that is knowing and understanding and on the right object which is God, and the bloody, vicarious, atoning, and all sufficient sacrifice of His resurrected Son. This is the faith that appropriates Christ, and brings righteousness. This is the faith that saves and then continues on till death or the rapture, whichever may come first. Faith doesn’t stop. It continues on, permanently, exercised daily (Col 2:6-7) because the just live and walk by faith (Hab 2:4; Rom 1:17; Gal 3:11; Heb 10:38).
The same faith that saved Abraham (vv 16-22) at the ripe age of 99, continued to guide his life until his last breath, the promised seed (Isaac) not coming for another 25 years and then Abraham sacrificing him on the alter (Gen 22; Jam 2:21-23). It was this sacrifice that proved Abraham was justified by faith (Jam 2:21-23). Abraham knew in order to see these promises of God, he would have to be resurrected from the dead, an element of the faith required to be converted, clearly noted in our text (vv 16-25), and fulfilled in Heb 11:8-19. That faith in the resurrection is illustrated when he obeyed God to kill his son. He knew that God could and would raise Isaac from the dead.
Saving faith is true faith that continues in faith and that glorifies God — it believes and keeps believing in God, in His Word, demonstrated by obedience, in spite of the circumstances or situations of life, having strong faith in the character of God who can bring something into existence out of nothing and bring something into existence that ceased to exist. Abraham’s faith continued fully persuaded in spite of never seeing the many nations (the meaning of his name) or seeds as the stars of the heaven, or the Seed, the promised Messiah, all which would be fulfilled precisely as promised. True faith doesn’t need any sort of tangible evidence to hold onto, for the just, “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7).
I feel almost embarrassed that I have to go into any sort of detail on something so simple in the Bible. Even though the evidence is abundantly clear, the context plain and easy understandable, some claim Rom 4:16-21 is teaching practical sanctification, Abraham laughing in Gen 17, but that is utter confusion and twisting Scripture. God however is not the author of confusion.
The Bible commands to “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Tim 2:15). Saved people do that, and are “are not as many, which corrupt the word of God:” (2 Cor 2:17), “nor handl[e] the word of God deceitfully” (2 Cor 4:2).